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In most elections the vice presidential debate is largely treated as an afterthought — or even a nonevent. In the more than 40 years since Republican Bob Dole and Democrat Walter Mondale faced off in the first debate between running mates, the event has had little impact on who wins the presidency, historians say.
But 2020 is no ordinary election year. Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic challenger Kamala Harris are scheduled to take the stage Wednesday in Salt Lake City amid one of the most chaotic periods in modern American history. President Trump’s recent hospitalization for COVID-19 treatment has thrust even more uncertainty into a campaign that was already colored by a pandemic, an economic crisis and ongoing unrest in cities across the country.
The coronavirus outbreak among top White House officials and GOP lawmakers raised the question of whether the debate would be held at all. Pence has tested negative for the virus, the administration says, despite being in close proximity to several people who have contracted it over the past two weeks.
Still, extra precautions are being taken to protect the candidates. Pence and Harris will be 12 feet apart, a greater distance than originally planned. A proposed plexiglass barrier to separate the candidates from each other and the moderator, Susan Page of USA Today, has reportedly been a point of contention between the two campaigns.
Why there’s debate
Wednesday’s event may have higher stakes than any other vice presidential debate in history, some pundits say. Trump’s illness plus the age of both candidates — Joe Biden is 77, Trump is 74 — mean Pence and Harris face more pressure to show that they’re ready to step into the presidency if needed. The debate can also serve as an early audition for the 2024 presidential race, especially for Harris, who is seen as a frontrunner to be Biden’s successor if he chooses to serve one term.
Pence faces a particularly difficult task, some argue. As head of the White House coronavirus task force, he will have to answer for both the administration’s larger struggles to contain the virus nationwide and the specific failures that led to the outbreak among top government officials. He’ll also face pressure to offer a calm, clear-eyed vision of the Trump campaign in contrast to the president’s aggressive performance in the first debate last week, which helped Biden build a double-digit lead in many national polls.
Harris has challenges of her own. As a potential standard-bearer for the Democratic party after Biden, she’ll face the tricky task of defending her progressive policy plans while pushing back against likely attempts by Pence to paint her as a radical leftist, pundits say. Trump’s illness also may force her to soften some of the potential criticisms of the administration.
The final two presidential debates, which are scheduled for Oct. 15 and Oct. 22, remain in doubt as the president continues to receive treatment for COVID-19. Both Trump and Biden have said they hope to be able to attend, but it will likely be several days before it’s clear whether Trump will be in condition to do so.
Pence and Harris need to show that they are fit to assume the presidency
“President Trump’s hospitalization with the coronavirus has catapulted this week’s vice-presidential debate into the spotlight to an extraordinary degree, putting pressure on Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris to use this forum to reassure an anxious public they are prepared and qualified to step in as president.” — Adam Nagourney and Shane Goldmacher, New York Times
The public will be looking for answers after a week of chaos
“It’s the first event after a positive COVID diagnosis of a sitting president. It’s the first debate after what I would describe as a calamity of a debate between the two presidential candidates. All eyes focus on this debate, and what may be front and center has nothing to do with policy, but it may be Americans looking for vim and vigor and health in the candidates and some sign of normalcy.” — Political scientist Wayne Lesperance to Fox News
Pence and Harris must present calm, steady leadership to a rattled nation
“While vice presidential candidates almost always wish to project a presidential aura and command at the debate, that approach is paramount Wednesday night. It will be important for both candidates to steer away from outright political warfare and focus on the solemn reality of a country with an ill president and facing multiple other crises.” — John Hudak, Brookings
This could be the last major campaign event before the election
“The single vice presidential debate is usually nothing more than a footnote to the presidential race, dwarfed in importance by three presidential contests. But with President Donald Trump infected with the coronavirus, the dynamic has shifted — thrusting Pence, especially, into the spotlight. It is unclear whether there will be any more presidential debates.” — Molly Hensley-Clancy and Ruby Cramer, Buzzfeed News
Pence needs to inject energy into Trump’s flagging campaign
“An unexpectedly dynamic debate performance by a vice presidential nominee could provide much-needed energy to the troubled Trump-Pence campaign at the most crucial time. It would be a mistake to again underestimate Mike Pence.” — Aaron Kall, USA Today
Harris and Pence both have the opportunity to set the tone for a potential presidential bid
“This week’s debate is also a political test for Mr. Pence and Ms. Harris. … Both could seek the White House in the future.” — Tarini Parti and Andrew Restuccia, Wall Street Journal
Harris must avoid coming off as too far left
“Kamala Harris is much more close to the socialistic line than even Biden is; he is a moderate compared to Harris. It’s fair for Pence to make the point that if you vote for Biden and he does not complete his term, then you end up with Harris, so you’ve got to be prepared for that.” — Republican fundraiser Mike Murphy to Guardian
Even in these extreme circumstances, the VP debate won’t make much of a difference
“In an election cycle since Joe Biden has been the presumptive nominee in March we’ve had a global pandemic, a financial collapse, rioting in the streets, the president of the United States hospitalized, a presidential debate that looked like a Jerry Springer show, yet the polling numbers have not really moved outside the margin of error. I’m not sure that Mike Pence versus Kamala Harris is going to make the difference.” — Republican strategist Terry Sullivan to Bloomberg
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